How an Ancient Story of Renegade Rabbis Caught With Black Market Technology Can Help Us Navigate ChatGPT’s Apocalyptic Aura

Image: Tara Winstead

The promiseand the threatof artificial intelligence is that the world as we know it is ending. Even Sam Altman, the creator of ChatGPT, recognized that behind economic promise glows an apocalyptic aura: “AI will probably most likely lead to the end of the world, but in the meantime, there’ll be great companies.” 

It’s not just tech leaders who feel this way. Even the most casual users of ChatGPT feel this dread. Will teaching become untenable? Will my job be filled by a computer? Will robots rule the world? While these questions may not quite seem apocalyptic, the fear they express echoes Sam Altman’s comment.

From fountain pens to movable type, major technological advances always precipitate crises. At the time, the looming change seems to threaten our way of life. But, in hindsight, the changes are drained of their emotional charge and often appear to have altered the world for the better. 

As astute observers of human nature have noted, the technology that was new when our parents were children is an accepted fact of life in our adulthood, while the new gadget just around the bend terrifies us as we catch a glimpse of it. How might we bridge the gap from our current threatened moment to a better future?

We might begin by looking to the past for sources of wisdom. The struggle to reconcile our past human experiences with the promise of the new tools we create is as old as the history of human invention. The Talmud, the ancient record of law and lore studied by Jews for generations, includes a powerful story about the potential and pitfalls of new media. 

In the story, two renegade rabbis are caught with black market technology: a written scroll of rabbinic stories. Handwritten scrolls of rabbinic thought may seem like a far cry from AI—or, indeed, from the category of technology itself—but just like the tools of the digital age, writing was a human-made tool designed to make life easier. Yet much like AI today it sparked panic. 

These rabbis were crossing a technological red line: All religious teachings other than the Bible itself were to be transmitted orally, from teacher to student. According to this section of the Talmud, it was forbidden to write down any religious teaching outside of the text of the Bible. 

And yet, despite the clear prohibition articulated in this passage, some scholars were so excited about the promise of a new technological frontier for their material they committed their ideas to writing. By applying the technology of writing to rabbinic teaching and learning, their own ideas would be better preserved, and future generations would gain access to unprecedented riches of learning, as each new scholar’s wisdom could be passed on to new communities. 

The Talmud is a heavily edited literary compilation, not a record of a single conversation, so even though it’s presented as a live issue in the story, the very fact that readers are encountering the tale in the Talmud—a work literally made possible by the technology in debate—means that writing down rabbinic teachings is a foregone conclusion. 

The narrator’s voice, which initially forbids this kind of writing, eventually relents, rationalizing that such dissemination is simply impossible without writing technology. Caught between a theological commitment and a pragmatic need, the Talmud yields to practical progress.

But the Talmud doesn’t completely yield to the inevitability of technological development. Instead, it investigates this new technology. And that’s ultimately what we can learn from it. We can ask ourselves what’s at stake in adopting this new technology. Although Altman is happy to state his fears about AI out loud, for most of us it’s hard to do so without sounding hyperbolic. 

The Talmud has no such qualms. Regarding the technology of the written word, theologically, the Talmud contends, what was at stake was no less than the opportunity for a relationship with the Divine. When thoughts are written down, they lose their flavor, their spirit, their intentionality.

Strengthening bonds between individuals and making knowledge accessible to entire communities are both core missions of human civilization. At the heart of Jewish learning is a tension between deep, intensive knowledge that builds relationships on the one hand, and a desire for the democratization of knowledge on the other. The spoken word, the word that goes back to the first moment of revelation, connects people to one another and to their past but is limited and unreproducible; the written word is not designed to create personal relationships between individuals, but is more easily disseminated to a greater number of people.

We experience AI as a crisis because, like the rabbis of the Talmud, we actually have conflicting needs and desires. We crave the efficiency of AI because it can save time and effort, helping us write emails, make phone calls, and recall and summarize information. At the same time, we’re seeking human connection when we do reach out, and AI fails to provide that soul-to-soul contact. Jewish authorities accept writing as a viable mode of transmission rather than lose knowledge to the inconsistencies of human memory. Yet even while accepting this technological shift, they make sure to place value on the human transmission that’s being at least partially replaced by this change.

We can negotiate a non-apocalyptic future of living with AI only by having open and honest conversations about this tension. Successfully navigating what seems like an earth-shattering transition depends not on creating “great companies,” but on empowered citizens who decide what values to prioritize when building new technologies. 

At the heart of this sense of impending doom that surrounds current AI models is our fear of lost engagement. We’re less afraid that we’ll be ruled by robots, and more frightened that talking to ChatGPT might keep us from talking to our friends or creating meaningful connections with people whose emotions are as real as ours. The final lines of this Talmudic story, the mic-drop moment, express a version of this fear. According to the Talmud, the Divine Being itself worries about the danger of estrangement inherent in over-reliance on written text. “Should I write the greater part of my Torah? In that case the Jewish people would be considered like strangers.” 

Quoting the Deity is the strongest possible way for the Talmud to state its concern about what happens when new technologies develop for disseminating knowledge. We need not quote a deity, but as we head toward new frontiers of AI, we do need to heed the warning and prioritize the need to form meaningful human connections.